Over the past one month, the community has been taking out silent marches across various towns, following the brutal rape and murder of a Maratha girl at Kopardi in Ahmednagar district two months ago by four Dalit men.
But the underlying cause for their discontentment is largely economic. The Marathas, once the economic backbone of the state, have grown insecure and see no scope for greater prosperity in the future. This discontentment is directed at Dalit reservations.
A confirmation of this assessment will come in the form of a silent march on Thursday, where Marathas will demand reservations in educational institutes and government jobs. They have laid out three major demands: reservation for Marathas, a modification of the Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST) (Prevention of Atrocities) Act and punishment for the Kopardi rape accused.
Even though the Dalits are considerably less well-off than their Maratha counterparts, the demand for reservations seems to be picking up speed. The Maharashtra government can ill-afford to ignore their demands considering that the community accounts for 32 percent of state’s population and owns close to 75 percent of the state’s land.
The community exerts serious influence in Maharashtra politics—13 of its 18 Chief Ministers were Marathas. A large segment of state’s cooperative bodies, including sugar factories, and educational institutions are controlled by them.
But there are also lakhs of Maratha farmers with small land holdings, who have been hit hard by the ongoing agrarian crisis. Unlike the OBCs and Dalits, these members of the Maratha community do not have the comfort of reservations. For more than two decades, many high-level institutions, including the National Commission for Backward Classes, have rejected their demands.
Even the Supreme Court has rejected their demand for 16 percent quota in government jobs and educational institutes. Before the 2014 Assembly elections, the erstwhile Congress-NCP government promised 16 percent reservations for Marathas in government jobs and educational institutes.
The apex court rejected their demand on the grounds that the Marathas weren’t backward enough. A similar movement rages on in Gujarat, where another dominant caste, the Patels, have agitated for reservation. Of course, there are the Jats in Haryana and Kapus in Andhra Pradesh.
Since the days of the British Raj, many Indians have placed a great premium on government jobs. Liberalisation has not changed this dynamic. Its benefits have not been felt by vast segments of the rural populace. An analysis of the recent protests suggests that they coincided with landmark events in the agriculture sector.
The agrarian crisis in India has definitely a played it part in pushing these communities to demand reservations. Thus, it is imperative that we place the Maratha agitation in the context of similar movements in India by other socially dominant and landed caste communities like the Patidars in Gujarat and Kapus in Andhra Pradesh.
Many have questioned the Maratha community’s demand for reservation in government jobs. In the popular imagination, communities such as the Marathas and Jats are largely seen as both socially dominant and economically prosperous. This apparent paradox is resolved when one recognises that certain sections of these socially dominant communities are economically backward.
It is especially true of these erstwhile traditional landowner communities, many of whom have seen their landholdings shrink through generations. Those who move away from the farm, often find that the education they acquire is often not good enough for the current job market.
While a large segment of these communities remains economically backward with little scope for employment in the cluttered job market, they still share that sense of social dominance and entitlement with their more prosperous brethren.
Reservations were first envisaged by our founding fathers as a model of social justice for communities that have been subject to historical discrimination. “Caste laws specifically excluded Dalits and Adivasis from membership of society, so this had to be remedied in our Constitution by legally enforced inclusion, that is, Reservation,” according to noted academic Satish Deshpande.
“This model of reservation addressed social exclusion rather than economic deprivation, even though the former almost always produced the latter.” In the 1990s, the Mandal reforms ought to address “castes that suffered milder forms of social exclusion than Dalits or Adivasis, but were, on the whole, clearly disadvantaged in economic and educational terms,” according to Deshpande.
The Mandal model, which created the Other Backward Classes (OBC) segment, had the unfortunate effect of laying down the use of caste-based quotas as the only State response to social and economic disadvantage.
What’s worse, it failed to expand the criteria for social justice beyond caste. One could argue that the recent agitation by the Maratha community is down to a combination of the reservation policy’s failure to broaden the scope of social justice beyond caste, inadequate job creation under the current economic model in India and a poor higher education system, which creates millions of poorly skilled graduates.